Business groups challenge PM to ditch Heathrow opposition

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A letter from major business groups to Boris Johnson will urge the new PM to support the airport’s expansion, Sky News learns.

Boris Johnson is facing his first substantive challenge from Britain’s business community with a demand that he ditches his long-standing opposition to the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

Sky News has learned that five major UK business groups, including the CBI and British Chambers of Commerce, have signed a letter to Mr Johnson in which he will be warned that failing to support a third runway will “prevent us all from successfully building a global Britain”.

The letter will be sent in the coming days, soon after the new prime minister stood in Downing Street and pledged to back major infrastructure projects across Britain with billions of pounds of new investment.

However, the intervention from some of the UK’s most influential business groups on Mr Johnson’s first full day as prime minister will throw the spotlight on to an issue which has been politically toxic for the former London mayor.

In 2015, he vowed as the MP for Uxbridge – a constituency which is close to the UK’s busiest aviation hub – to “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway”.

When MPs voted on the expansion of Heathrow last year, the then foreign secretary opted to fly to Afghanistan in order to avoid voting against the government of which he was a member.

During a number of the Conservative Party leadership hustings, Mr Johnson again highlighted “grave concerns” about the project’s impact on air quality and noise pollution.

In the business groups’ letter, a copy of which has been seen by Sky News, they describe Heathrow’s expansion as “an essential project that will boost British exports and support our construction and engineering sectors, helping the UK’s economy prosper”.

“Following last year’s overwhelming vote of cross-party support in parliament, we are aware that you continue to have concerns about whether the environmental challenges of the project can be met.

“While the potential economic benefits are huge, our support for expansion is not unconditional.

“It must not come at an unacceptable cost to the quality of life of local communities, nor to the health of the environment.”

London First, Make UK and the Federation of Small Business are also signatories to the letter.

The collective plea from the UK’s biggest business groups is significant so early in Mr Johnson’s Downing Street tenure.

The CBI is the UK’s largest such body, with 190,000 members employing approximately seven million people – or about one-third of the country’s private sector workforce.

Its support for Heathrow’s expansion is long-standing, and formed part of a new business manifesto published by the group last week.

The issue of a third runway at the airport has been the most intractable infrastructure question facing British politicians for years.

The business groups say in the letter that environmental commitments made by Heathrow – for its infrastructure to be carbon-neutral by 2020 and net zero carbon by 2050 – are sufficiently robust

“[Heathrow] are also clear that their expansion plans, including the growth in flights, are both compatible with UK climate targets and carbon neutral.

“However, to further this progress, the aviation industry also needs action from your government to boost research and development into airspace modernisation and technological innovations.

“As with a number of sectors, it’s important that we tackle issues like climate change whilst ensuring we’re protecting our economy too.”

The letter also argues that growing Heathrow is required from an export perspective once the UK leaves the European Union.

“With Brexit approaching, it is critical the UK remains ambitious and outward-looking.

“Expansion also presents a significant opportunity for the UK to increase its export capacity and trading routes.

“As the UK’s only major hub airport, Heathrow provides businesses with connectivity to almost any market in the world.

“With up to 40 new routes and the doubling of cargo capacity, expansion will mean we are able to put more British goods on shelves across the globe.”

Earlier this week, John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, said the third runway’s construction was now “a fait accompli”, adding that the £14bn project was “now happening”.

Nevertheless, legal challenges to its go-ahead remain ongoing.

A broad group of campaigners against the expansion were this week given permission to challenge a High Court ruling that they could not seek to block a third runway.

A two-week hearing in March heard arguments from environmental groups, residents’ associations and local authorities that giving it the green light paved the way for the creation of “a new airport” the size of London Gatwick.

Aviation capacity in the south-east England has long been one of the most pressing issues confronting British business.

Politically, direct responsibility for dealing with the issue will now lie with Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, who is reported to have been a vocal backer of Heathrow’s expansion.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “This letter shows the strong support from businesses up and down UK, all of which are eager to experience the economic benefits of an expanded Heathrow.

“We look forward to working with the new prime minister and secretary of state, alongside major business groups who are keen to see progress in this major, privately funded and vital infrastructure project.”

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